Byron Calame, the public editor of the New York Times, admits today that the paper made a mistake when it decided to run the Swift terrorist finance tracking story. (Via Michelle Malkin.) Calame had previously defended the decision in a column that, he now concedes, gave insufficient weight to the arguments against publication.
Calame’s reversal is welcome, but comes four months too late. Calame never should have defended the publication of the Swift story to begin with. He already had all the facts he needed to oppose the decision back in June, when the story was first published.
Calame says that two factors ultimately persuaded him that running the story was a mistake:
the apparent legality of the program in the United States, and the absence of any evidence that anyone’s private data had actually been misused.
But those factors were immediately obvious to anyone reading the article. The evening the article hit the Web, I noted that the article had failed to raise any serious issues regarding the program’s legality. And the next day — the same day the article was published in the print version of the New York Times and Los Angeles Times — I noted the “strict controls” that were in place. Within three days, I had a detailed post, based on the articles themselves, which discussed the program’s legality, controls, and congressional oversight.
Why was I able to figure this out instantly, whereas it took the New York Times‘s public editor four months to realize the importance of these facts? It’s not because I’m smarter than Byron Calame; I’m not. It’s because I don’t automatically defend a newspaper simply because it has been attacked by the Bush Administration. By contrast, the only reason Calame supported the paper’s decision, he admits today, was because the paper had been harshly criticized by the Bush Administration:
What kept me from seeing these matters more clearly earlier in what admittedly was a close call? I fear I allowed the vicious criticism of The Times by the Bush administration to trigger my instinctive affinity for the underdog and enduring faith in a free press — two traits that I warned readers about in my first column.
Simply put, Byron Calame overlooked (or underweighted) obvious facts, and defended his paper in a knee-jerk fashion, simply because his paper had been viciously attacked by the government.
A public editor who cannot objectively evaluate his paper’s behavior in the face of criticism — from any source — should not be the public editor.
I appreciate Calame’s honesty. But he should resign.
UPDATE x2: Calame’s column gives me an idea for the editors of the L.A. Times. More on that here.
UPDATE x3: I should make clear that, about an hour after I published this, I added a couple of words to make it clear that Calame may have simply underweighted, rather than completely overlooked, a couple of concepts that he discussed in his column.